The words we missed

Sept. 30, 2020, 8:25 p.m.

7,000 words. Take an average person and he or she speaks at least this much in a given day, although the word count can reach well above 20,000. In this time, even more can go unsaid.

While I never was on campus to experience live, in-person lectures, I doubt that as many were recorded as they are now. With the justified demand for an asynchronous option for synchronous courses, I have found that more of what I say than ever is going on the record. It is an interesting notion, though, recording what’s traditionally a somewhat ephemeral interaction. Sure, you can take notes, but likely no one is going to transcribe a lecture word by word, and a lot of the class just ends up as fragmented memories in the brain, until now, of course. I can’t help but wonder not just about classes, but about all of the spoken words over history that went into the ether, never again to inform a soul. How did humans emigrating from the Fertile Crescent decide to head east or west? What did the Middle Egyptian language sound like? How did the inventor(s) of the wheel explain it to others?

This might be an uneasy notion, especially since wanting to leave a mark is something so deeply human. For instance, starting in eighth grade, I thought I could forge a legacy that would outlast me by narrating every day of my life in a journal. So far, I have written over two million words in a frenzy, hoping that I’ll be one of the lucky ones who isn’t forgotten by Father Time. But is it just a fallacy? I can write, influence those around me and possibly even have descendants but how much of my essence will make it down the line, and does it matter? Is it even desirable?

Let’s start with rocks. They appear to be permanent, but only on the specific scale of a lifespan. Yet humankind recognized the fact long ago that rocks are permanent for thousands of years. We use rocks to build statues, monuments, buildings and engravings because they will outlast any timeframe which we can reasonably imagine. There is a tendency to carve our heroes into stone because we want them to last forever. Tacitly, these forms are constantly being eroded away by Mother Nature with each passing day.

Our relationship with permanence is shifting much more rapidly. Dusty VHS tapes, DVDs, vinyl records and other forms of outdated media are being replaced by ones and zeros in the cloud services offered by tech giants. As the Internet of Things continues to rack up 2.5 quintillion bytes of data on the daily, it is nearly impossible not to leave behind a paper trail. 

It seems the mere fact that more of life is recorded means that less of it can be experienced in the moment, at least in my experience. For instance, the pervasiveness of the digital camera has forever changed live events. This newfound ability can lead an entire crowd to obsess over memorializing an experience so much that they forget to live it. Furthermore, the longevity of the recorded word prompts people to behave differently, more cautiously, leaving less room for free-flowing, low-stakes discourse. True, even the hardware that stores digital files can degrade, prompting companies to find another way, but we have time before that happens. In a world where distractions from living life are so readily available and previously inconsequential conversation is cemented, I wonder how dynamic events used to be when they could only be experienced once. 

We’re trapped between the past and the future, and I, along with the rest of humanity, will have to learn how to reconcile the fast-paced linear advancement of technological record systems with the slow-paced savoring of the present moment. Change is common, transcendent and inevitable on the grand scale, and seemingly, the only thing we can do about it is to decide the direction in which to move forward — not if to move forward, but when and how. If you approach change with spite and refuse to acknowledge it as the natural force that it is, you may waste your energy and forgo the chance to influence the shape of what it becomes.

Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’

Matthew Turk ’24 served as the Chief Technology Officer for Vols. 262 and 263, as well as a Grind Managing Editor, Data Director and Desk Editor in News, among other roles for The Stanford Daily. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics.

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